At 9 o'clock on a Thursday night at Lil' Frankie's, the bustling Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, soul music plays over the speakers as a wave of diners flows in the front door. Seated at the bar, chef and owner Frank Prisinzano scratches his salt-and-pepper beard as he prepares to share the story of how he became a chef. First, a drink. "Just drop a bottle of Montepulciano right here," he says to the bartender.
Prisinzano is the sort of host who knows what you want to drink before you do, who has delicious-looking dishes appearing in front of you before you've even seen a menu; and, as the owner of three of downtown New York's favorite restaurants (Frank, Lil' Frankie's, and Supper), he could easily be considered the de facto culinary king of Lower Manhattan.
"I grew up outside of Manhattan always looking in," Prisinzano recalls, "saying, 'I want to get in there!' That was success to me." Though the chef was born in the city, in Flushing, Queens, his family moved out to Long Island's Suffolk County when he was a child in order to "escape the extended family Italian thing." Prisinzano made frequent trips back to Queens to visit his grandparents. "Whenever we'd visit them," Prisinzano recalls, "we'd walk through my grandfather's huge workshop, and then all of a sudden we'd come into this light: my grandmother's kitchen."
His grandmother, Carmela, would cook the traditional food of her native Naples for the entire family, as well as a rotating selection of Pugliese dishes she'd added to her repertoire so her husband could always have a taste of his hometown at the ready. This seems to have been the catalyst for Prisinzano's culinary passion. "From the time I was very young, she was grabbing me to help her," Prisinzano says. "No one else in the family really had any inclination toward it. She had all these family recipes, and she was not going to die without passing them on."
Frank Prisinzano is an avid user of social media, and takes to Snapchat regularly to share his methods with his followers. Carmela's cooking was famous among neighbors, too. On Friday nights, Prisinzano's grandparents would throw all-night card games for friends who would come and go at all hours—not simply to play cards, but to eat the food Carmela would serve the whole night through. "It was like owning a restaurant," Prisinzano says of the work she put into the affair. "My grandmother would cook all weekend, and then go back to work as a seamstress Monday morning."
Spaghetti al limone, tagliata toscana, pappardelle with lamb ragu—all of what have come to be known by Prisinzano's clientele as his signature dishes began with his grandmother. While it was in her kitchen that Carmela first opened Prisinzano's eyes to the beauty of Italian food, it was over the course of a 52-day trip with her to Italy that its importance in his life was truly cemented. "Everything there was just so much better," he says wistfully. "I was having epiphany after epiphany! I was already into food because I'd been cooking with my grandmother—but now I was seeing the roots behind it. Everything came together for me."
Upon returning, he immediately landed a job at a local pizzeria and within three months had managed to learn his way around the kitchen. From there, he moved to a high-end Italian restaurant before enrolling in culinary school at the age of 18. "I became the top chef in Long Island when I was 23 years old," says Prisinzano nonchalantly. "I didn't want to stay out there, but when I left Long Island and came back to the city, nobody knew me." In a bold move, he made a list of his favorite chefs in New York, knocked on their doors, and offered to work for free. And so it was that he ended up spending one week with three of the most talked-about chefs of the time—David Burke at the Park Avenue Cafe, Charlie Palmer at Aureole, and David Boulé at Boulé—before ultimately taking a job at the Park Avenue Cafe.
He found Burke to be the most inspiring. "What was really great about him was that his food was whimsical," says Prisinzano. He loved how Burke would take a traditional dish like grilled cheese and elevate it. It was exactly what Prisinzano wanted to do with his simple Italian dishes. "Why isn't this food just as important as high-end Italian food?" he wondered of the peasant dishes he'd loved cooking ever since those early days in his grandmother's kitchen. "Why can't you execute these simple items at such a high level that it's the fucking best thing you've eaten in your entire life?"
And so his first restaurant, Frank, was born—but not before Carmela could make one more indelible mark on his life."My grandmother's house was like an antique museum," he says of the home in which he first learned to cook. "Everywhere [my grandparents] went, they stole something." Among the stolen goods were the very sets of silverware that Prisinzano would end up using to serve his first customers. "There I am, serving [my grandmother's] food on her plates, with her silverware. I took her kitchen table—the white enamel table where she taught me how to cook—and that's the table that still sits in front of Frank. It was all her ideas, and then I became a chef and made all her food better."
And continue reading to learn how to make Frank's classic Spaghetti With Garlic and Oil!